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V.3 #5 Counseling/School Psychology - Curriculum-Based Assessment

Empirical research has reinforced the notion that curriculum-based assessment (CBA) procedures result in positive effects on the academic achievement of students with special needs (Jones, Southern, & Brigham, 1998). Although there are different approaches to CBA, there appears to be some commonalities or general features that contribute substantially to instructional effectiveness associated with it.

What is CBA?

CBA should not be considered an informal procedure, as it is sometimes mistakenly understood. Some educators have defined CBA as focusing on a series of short-term instructional objectives (Madelaine & Wheldall, 1999). Nevertheless, most educators (Jones et al., 1998) agree that CBA is a systematic process of developing and implementing standards for:

  1. identifying academic difficulties directly from the classroom curriculum, rather than from a standardized achievement test.

  2. measuring frequent changes in these academic behavioral difficulties.

  3. presenting the results of testing.

  4. using the test data results to make instructional decisions.

CBA influences and enhances instruction in several ways:

  1. CBA focuses on the main question that pertains to instruction — what needs to be taught and how best to teach it. For example, in examining students' decoding skills in reading, a teacher can give a passage to the students that is derived directly from the classroom reading curriculum.

  2. individual students’ responses to instruction are monitored.

  3. the performance data is analyzed and used to make appropriate decisions; whether changes in the instruction are warranted or not, such as more emphasis on instruction in blending of sounds and segmentation. In other words, the teacher can examine the specific errors the children make with regard to phonological awareness.

The most probable cause for a student’s lack of academic success is due to the demands of the curriculum. Therefore, a curriculum evaluation is necessary in order to determine a student’s academic difficulties (Jones et al., 1998). Teachers who engage in the process of CBA need to:

  1. identify which knowledge and skills are crucial for students to learn.

  2. appraise the demands of the curriculum.

  3. recognize difficulties or obstacles that students are likely to encounter.

  4. choose empirically valid signs of improvement based on data.

  5. reflect on the characteristics and achievements of individual students before instruction is implemented.

Teachers need the skills to be excellent observers of students’ current performance and compare it with expected criteria. The point that needs to be stressed here is that CBA focuses on the classroom curriculum more than non-CBA procedures, such as standardized tests.

CBA almost exclusively focuses on the individual student’s performance in response to real-life instructional experiences. Standardized tests have been criticized extensively for a lack of content validity by failing to measure the curriculum being taught (Madelaine & Wheldall, 1999). If the content validity is low on a test, then the test results fail to accurately indicate what the student has learned. Too often, standardized tests assess a student’s knowledge and performance on material that has a poor correlation with the student’s curriculum in school. Moreover, global measures of performance on standardized tests, such as reading comprehension, shed little light on what interventions are necessary for improvement. However, in CBA, indications where the student had difficulties in comprehending the story, such as poor decoding skills, appropriate interventions could be implemented to directly attack the student’s deficit.

CBA requires that the students' skills and knowledge are frequently and directly assessed on an on-going basis (Jones et al., 1998). The purpose of these frequent assessments is to alert the teacher on improving the students' skills that are of immediate and of crucial importance. These frequent assessments also provide essential information (motivating feedback) for the students with regard to instructional objectives and their performance; the students know what they are expected to accomplish.

Target Behaviors

In this step, target behaviors that are definable, measurable, observable, and sensitive to changes in achievement, must be identified by the teacher in order to indicate changes in academic achievement (Jones et al., 1998). For example, when testing for reading fluency, one may ask a student to read a passage orally for three minutes. The number of words are then counted and divided by three to determine the average words per minute (Paulsen, 1997). An improvement in reading fluency can be defined, observed and measured quite easily using this measure, which has a favorable influence on reading decoding and comprehension (Paulsen, 1997).

Complex learning or behavior need to be shaped and are not achieved without the creation of a hierarchy of increasingly more complex tasks (Jones et al., 1998). The goal is broken down into sub goals (a form of task analysis) that the student needs to reach in order to progress up the hierarchical ladder to ultimately reach the targeted goal.

Lastly, CBA provides important and relevant information that can be used for making instructional decisions by various individuals who can contribute and have an interest in the student’s academic progress, such as parents, school psychologists, general and special education teachers. Too often, standardized tests do not necessarily provide pertinent information to the student’s teacher to make adjustments in specific goals and interventions currently in place ((Madelaine & Wheldall, 1999). The CBA provides relevant information for all who are involved in the collaborative and consultation process.


Jones, E. D., Southern, W. T., & Brigham, F. J. (1998). Curriculum-based assessment: Testing what is taught and teaching what is tested. Intervention in School and Clinic, 33, 239-249.

Madelaine, A. & Wheldall, K. (1999). Curriculum-based measurement of reading: A critical review. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 46, 71-85.

Paulsen, K. J. (1997). Curriculum-based measurement: Translating research into school-based practice. Intervention in School and Clinic, 32, 162-167.

Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs.

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